The Better Soul Four Huts
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A 10th Century Japanese Government Servant-Turned-Buddhist Monk’s Advice on Work-Life Balance

The short works collection Four Huts: Asian Writings on Simple Life offers a window into the treasured aesthetic and spiritual ideas of simple living and simple dwelling. The stories in this collection were written between the ninth and the seventeenth centuries, and are translated by one of the most respected translators of Chinese and Japanese literature, Burton Watson.

Watson’s translations of these texts are nothing groundbreaking, but simply pure. One of the chapters of this book was written in 10th century by Yoshishige no Yasutane, a government servant who later became a Buddhist monk. He says:

During such time as I am at court, I apply myself to the business of the sovereign; once home, my thoughts turn always to the service of the Buddha.

Four Huts: Asian Writings on Simple Life

He doesn’t sound dejected or jaded about his work. In fact, his work style seems to arise from wakeful action. He is not rushing to be home, or some place else. He “applies” himself to the work. One can interpret it as a complete acceptance of what is given, and working with what one has. A lot of times the human mind wants to escape the regular, the everyday. It seeks mountains, fresh air, sun and seas, anything that can physically separate it from what it feels extremely overwhelmed to do. Man tends to escape to the woods or the hills because civilization today has become predatory.

Yoshishige no Yasutane, although lives in a mountain home, doesn’t escape his work. He gives himself to his work as is required, and then leaves for home. This is perhaps where the present-day man fails. He is never present, but is eager to escape.

Four Huts: Asian Writings on Simple Life

He further writes:

Once home, my thoughts turn always to the service of the Buddha. When I go abroad I don my grass-green official robe, and though my post is a minor one, I enjoy a certain measure of honour. At home I wear white hemp garments, warmer than spring, purer than the snow.

Four Huts: Asian Writings on Simple Life

Yoshishige no Yasutane shows no resistance to where he is. Even in a minor official post, he comes across as someone who honours the significance of little things instead of rushing to embrace the magnificent. He later on goes to describe his routine when he is back home from work:

After washing my hands and rinsing my mouth, I ascend the western hall, call in the Buddha Amida, and recite The Lotus Sutra. When my supper is done, I enter the eastern library, open my books, and find myself in the company of the worthy men of the past. …I close my gate, shut my door, and hum poems and sing songs by myself. When I feel the desire for something more, my boys and I climb into the little boat, thump the gunwale, and rattle the oars. If I have some free time left over, I call the groom and we go out to the vegetable garden to pour on water and spread manure. I love my house – other things I know nothing about.

Four Huts: Asian Writings on Simple Life

This account of his captures the relationship man builds with his surroundings, with his tribe, and with nature. This reminds us how man, in order to keep up with the collective mind, has forgone his spirit. How many nights ago did we sing songs to ourselves? How many seasons ago did we water a tree?

Reading a record from the 10th century gives us a window into what people did before the mindless technological frenzy. What would a record of today read or look like even a century later? At the rate at which humanity is creating content online, will anything be even remotely sacred to preserve?

We are circling constantly around our needs and greed. How much is too much? How much is enough? Where do we draw the line? How much do we really need to feel secure? When do we say farewell to the miseries we create inside of us? And, how do we inspire ourselves to answer all this with honesty?

Perhaps along with an escape to the hills or the sea, we need an escape from our minds every now and then, for we have turned prisoners of our minds. We need a prescription for our souls, for our wounds to heal so we can revisit ourselves and build the courage to hear our own answers.

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